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Schools Encouraged to Promote Citizenship

While Americans prepare to celebrate the country's independence, there is some concern that young people don't exercise their rights as citizens or fully appreciate lessons of political history.

CitizenshipFirst is a group that aims to push educators and policymakers to embrace the civic mission of education and make it a national priority. By 2026—the 250th anniversary of the country's founding—the organization is setting a goal that every high school graduate should be able to pass the U.S. citizenship exam. Fewer than half of Americans can do so today.

Launched in 2011, the organization is based out of Democracy Prep Public Schools, a network of public charter schools in New York City. It was built on concerns about civic illiteracy and an agenda for reform laid out in the book, Teaching America: The Case for Civic Education, edited by David Feith.

CitizenshipFirst uses creative advocacy, in-school programs, research, and reports to make the case for helping students better understand the constitutional system and become informed, active citizens.

"Our earliest thinkers about education didn't see schools as places to create workers. Their concern was to ensure that every American citizen would be able to participate in our democracy as an informed and engaged citizen," the CitizenshipFirst website says. "At a time when our country faces profound challenges, both at home and abroad, it's an idea that's never been more timely or relevant."

Lessons in civics and history education, however, are getting the squeeze in schools today. The buzz is around science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM careers). Attention is focused on subjects in which students are assessed and federal money is flowing—and that's not history or civics.

But just as CitizenshipFirst is trying to get out in front of the issue, efforts are ramping up to use technology and other activities to engage students more deeply in the history and compete with the new emphasis on STEM.

Online history lessons have been crafted for students to analyze primary sources and critique different interpretations of historical events. Upcoming changes to the Advanced Placement U.S. History course in fall 2014 and its accompanying exam in 2015 are expected to offer teachers flexibility to focus on specific historical events in more depth. The National History Bee & Bowl tournaments have been launched, joining the established National History Day as activities to excite students about history through competition.

To read more about the issue and new history initiatives, see Reviving History: What's Old Is New Again. There are lots of passionate historians and teachers trying to get the spotlight back on history. And they are buoyed by a recent report calling for more emphasis on the humanities in classrooms today. Critical thinking is something that is being embraced by the common core to develop 21st-century learners, and history advocates argue, that's something that good history education and analysis can teach students.

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